The Sunday Times February 26, 2006

Cavegirls were first blondes to have fun

Roger Dobson and Abul Taher


THE modern gentleman may prefer blondes. But new research has found that it was cavemen who were the first to be lured by flaxen locks.

According to the study, north European women evolved blonde hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to make them stand out from their rivals at a time of fierce competition for scarce males.


The study argues that blond hair originated in the region because of food shortages 10,000-11,000 years ago. Until then, humans had the dark brown hair and dark eyes that still dominate in the rest of the world. Almost the only sustenance in northern Europe came from roaming herds of mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses. Finding them required long, arduous hunting trips in which numerous males died, leading to a high ratio of surviving women to men.


Lighter hair colours, which started as rare mutations, became popular for breeding and numbers increased dramatically, according to the research, published under the aegis of the University of St Andrews.


“Human hair and eye colour are unusually diverse in northern and eastern Europe (and their) origin over a short span of evolutionary time indicates some kind of selection,” says the study by Peter Frost, a Canadian anthropologist. Frost adds that the high death rate among male hunters “increased the pressures of sexual selection on early European women, one possible outcome being an unusual complex of colour traits.”


Frost’s theory, to be published this week in Evolution and Human Behavior, the academic journal, was supported by Professor John Manning, a specialist in evolutionary psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. “Hair and eye colour tend to be uniform in many parts of the world, but in Europe there is a welter of variants,” he said. “The mate choice explanation now being put forward is, in my mind, close to being correct.”


Frost’s theory is also backed up by a separate scientific analysis of north European genes carried out at three Japanese universities, which has isolated the date of the genetic mutation that resulted in blond hair to about 11,000 years ago.


The hair colour gene MC1R has at least seven variants in Europe and the continent has an unusually wide range of hair and eye shades. In the rest of the world, dark hair and eyes are overwhelmingly dominant.


Just how such variety emerged over such a short period of time in one part of the world has long been a mystery. According to the new research, if the changes had occurred by the usual processes of evolution, they would have taken about 850,000 years. But modern humans, emigrating from Africa, reached Europe only 35,000-40,000 years ago.


Instead, Frost attributes the rapid evolution to how they gathered food. In Africa there was less dependence on animals and women were able to collect fruit for themselves. In Europe, by contrast, food gathering was almost exclusively a male hunter’s preserve. The retreating ice sheets left behind a landscape of fertile soil with plenty of grass and moss for herbivorous animals to eat, but few plants edible for humans. Women therefore took on jobs such as building shelters and making clothes while the men went on hunting trips, where the death rate was high.


The increase in competition for males led to rapid change as women struggled to evolve the most alluring qualities. Frost believes his theory is supported by studies which show blonde hair is an indicator for high oestrogen levels in women.


Jilly Cooper, 69, the author, described how in her blonde youth she had “certainly got more glances. I remember when I went to Majorca when I was 20, my bum was sore from getting pinched”.


However, Jodie Kidd, 27, the blonde model, disagrees with the theory: “I don’t think being blonde makes you more ripe for sexual activity. It’s much more to do with personality than what you look like. Beauty is much deeper than the colour of your hair.”



Film star blondes such as Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Sharon Stone and Scarlett Johansson are held up as ideals of feminine allure. However, the future of the blonde is uncertain.


A study by the World Health Organisation found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202.



Neanderthals in Europe Killed Off Earlier

By DAVID STRINGER, Associated Press Writer

Thu Feb 23, 9:56 AM ET


LONDON - Neanderthals in Europe were killed off by the advance of modern humans thousands of years earlier than previously believed, losing a competition for food and shelter, according to a scientific study published Wednesday.


The research uses advances in radiocarbon dating to revise understanding of early humans, suggesting they colonized Europe more rapidly and coexisted for a much shorter period with genetic ancestors.


Paul Mellars, professor of prehistory and human evolution at the University of Cambridge and author of the study, said Neanderthals — the species of the Homo genus that lived in Europe and western Asia from around 230,000 years ago to around 29,000 years ago — succumbed much more readily to competition.


"The two sides were competing for the same territories, the same animals and fuel supplies and occupying the same cave spaces. With that kind of competition, the Neanderthals were always going to come out as the losers," said Mellars, whose paper was published in the journal Nature.


Modern humans — those anatomically the same as people today — were also better equipped to deal with a 6 degree Celsius (11 Fahrenheit) fall in temperatures around 40,000 years ago.


"Because they had better clothing, better technology and a better mastery of fire, the humans were equipped to deal with it," Mellars said.


Mellars used the results of two recent studies of radiocarbon dating — a process of assessing age by counting radioactive decay of carbon in materials — to refine dates determined from fossils, bone fragments and other physical evidence that relates to the spread of humans.


Humans and Neanderthals, thought to have coexisted for 10,000 years across the whole of Europe, are more likely to have lived at the same time for only 6,000 years, the new study suggests.


Scientists believe the two species could have lived side by side at specific sites for periods of only about 2,000 years, but Mellars claims they would have lived in competition at each site for only 1,000 years.


Chris Stringer, human origins researcher at London's Museum of Natural History and not connected to the study, said the paper was an important step in the quest to reliably map the spread of human populations.


"This study suggests that the period of potential interaction was short, and also favors the idea that the impact of the newcomers was indeed a significant factor in the demise of the Neanderthals, something which has been disputed recently," said Stringer.


Two new studies of stratified radiocarbon in the Cariaco Basin, near Venezuela, and of radiocarbon on fossilized coral formations in the tropical Atlantic and Pacific have given scientists a better idea of the amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the last 50,000 years.


In turn, that work allows researchers to more accurately convert carbon years into calendar years, by taking into account variations in atmospheric carbon.


Mellars claims the first modern humans arrived in the Balkans from     Israel around 46,000 years ago, about 3,000 years earlier than thought.


His study claims they were able to spread west to the Atlantic coast in around 2,500 to 3,000 years, about 1,000 years quicker than believed.


"What it has revealed is the interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals was much shorter, 6,000 years instead of 10,000," said William Davies, of the Center for Human Origins, at the University of Southampton, who was not connected to the study.


"There is more work being done on the Neanderthals in Europe and I think the dates we have relating to interaction will keep getting shorter."



Radiocarbon review rewrites European pre-history

Wed Feb 22, 2006 1:13 PM ET


LONDON (Reuters) - The ancestors of modern man moved into and across Europe, ousting the Neanderthals, faster than previously thought, a new analysis of radiocarbon data shows.


Rather than taking some 7,000 years to colonize Europe from Africa, the reinterpreted data shows the process may only have taken 5,000 years, scientist Paul Mellars from Cambridge University said in the science journal Nature on Wednesday.


"The same chronological pattern points to a substantially shorter period of chronological and demographic overlap between the earliest ... modern humans and the last survivors of the preceding Neanderthal populations," he wrote.


The reassessment is based on advances in eliminating modern carbon contamination from ancient bone fragments and recalibration of fluctuations in the pattern of the earth's original carbon 14 content.


Populations of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans first appeared in the near eastern region some 45,000 years ago and slowly expanded into southeastern Europe.


Previously it was thought that this spread took place between 43,000 and 36,000 years ago, but the re-evaluated data suggests that it actually happened between 46,000 and 41,000 years ago -- starting earlier and moving faster.


"Evidently the native Neanderthal populations of Europe succumbed much more rapidly to competition from the expanding biologically and behaviorally modern populations than previous estimates have generally assumed," Mellars wrote.


He said the invasion could have been helped by a major change in the climate which modern man would have been technologically and culturally better equipped to deal with than the more primitive Neanderthals.


"There are increasing indications that over many areas of Europe, the final demise of the Neanderthal populations may have coincided with the sudden onset of very much colder and drier climatic conditions," Mellars wrote.


"This could have delivered the coup de grace to the Neanderthals in many parts of western and central Europe in their economic and demographic competition with the incoming modern groups," he added.


© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.



Friday, February 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:37 AM

Kennewick Man yields more secrets

By Sandi Doughton

Seattle Times staff reporter



Kennewick Man is whispering across 9,000 years.


The story his bones tell has no clear beginning yet. But the end is coming into sharp focus, say scientists who have been studying the controversial skeleton for the past six months.


It's now clear the man Native Americans call the Ancient One was deliberately buried — not just covered over with sediment, said Doug Owsley, leader of the team that first examined the skeleton last summer and returned for another round of study this month.


Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, presented the researchers' first conclusions Thursday night in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.


"This skeleton is so amazing," Owsley said in an interview. "And this level of analysis has never been done before."


Painstaking examination of the bones shows the body was placed in a shallow grave about 400 yards from where scientists believe the Columbia River was at the time. Kennewick Man was laid parallel to the river, on his back. His legs were extended, arms at his sides. His palms rested on the earth.


That picture contradicts some earlier studies that suggested he was in a fetal position, with knees drawn up to his chest.


The scientists say the evidence also hints that Kennewick Man was probably in his 30s when he died. Previous estimates had said he might have been as old as 45.


And a spear point embedded in his right hip had healed over cleanly. So it likely did not cause a chronic infection, as some experts had suspected initially, Owsley said.


The skeleton was discovered in 1996 in the Columbia River near the Tri-Cities town of Kennewick. Carbon dating has shown that the bones are about 9,200 years old.


After nine years of legal battles, the scientists won the right to study what has proved to be one of the oldest, most complete skeletons ever discovered in North America. Several Northwest tribes claimed the remains as an ancestor and insisted they be reburied. A federal judge finally concluded the bones were so old that it's impossible to establish a link with modern-day Native Americans.


When Owsley and his team finally got the chance to work with the bones, which are kept at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, they set out to answer several questions, including the issue of burial. They also hope to learn more about where his ancestors originated, and what kind of life he lived in a time thousands of years before civilizations arose in Mesopotamia.


Not all the studies are done, but the burial issue is settled, Owsley said.


To do that, the researchers made detailed diagrams of each of the 350 bone fragments, noting patterns of shading, mineral coloration, algae growth and calcium-carbonate deposits. All those indicators help reveal how the skeleton was oriented in the ground before the grave was eroded away by the river. And they show the body had been carefully positioned by other human hands.


Records of the river's levels in 1996 prove that the bones were washed into the river mere weeks before they were found, Owsley said. Had they weathered out earlier, they would have been swept downstream.


Kennewick Man was covered by about 2 ½ feet of earth before the river eroded the bank and freed the bones. But the grave would have been covered by years of sediments, so the original hole might have been even shallower, said Tom Stafford, a geochemist from the University of Wisconsin.


"They were probably digging with a stick," he said.


High-resolution scans of the hip bone have allowed the scientists to construct an exact replica of the stone spear point. A team of scientists that earlier examined the skeleton concluded the man had been speared from behind — perhaps by fellow hunters. But the current team said the pattern of chips and breaks on the point shows it penetrated Kennewick Man from the front.


"It would have sat him down — no doubt about it," Owsley said.


Also, they figure he was between 15 and 20 years old when he suffered the wound.


Seattle archaeologist Jim Chatters, who was the first scientist to examine the bones in 1996, said being able to re-examine them in greater detail with more modern methods has changed some of his earlier impressions.


For example, spots on the temple and elbow that he originally concluded were evidence of an infection have been shown to be simple weathering, he said.


Several other questions about Kennewick Man are still awaiting lab results, including a new round of carbon-dating and isotopic studies to show what his diet was like.


But the most contentious issue of all probably won't be settled for some time.


The first measurements of the skull showed it didn't match existing Native American populations. And that led to suggestions that Kennewick Man's ancestors might not have originated in Northern Asia like those of most Native Americans, who are believed to have crossed from Asia to Alaska about 11,000 years ago.


Owsley and his colleagues have made an extensive set of new skull measurements. They now are comparing them to a database of more than 7,000 modern and prehistoric people from around the world.


"We have a lot more work to do," he said.


Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com


Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



Remains of funeral boat found at Suyama tomb

The Yomiuri Shimbun


Several large vermillion-lacquered wood fragments believed to be part of a funeral boat were unearthed at the Suyama ancient tomb in Koryocho, Nara Prefecture, the local board of education has announced.


The fragments bear inscribed patterns and were unearthed from the moat surrounding the tomb, which dates from the late fourth century.


Researchers said the fragments were part of a funeral boat that was used to transport human remains from a mortuary to a tomb over land.


One of the fragments is a piece of Japanese cedar measuring 3.7 meters long, 45 centimeters wide and five centimeters thick. It was originally part of an 8.2-meter-long piece of wood believed to be from one side of the boat. The fragment is decorated with triple concentric circles, intended to ward off evil spirits, and a beltlike pattern.


A piece of Japanese cinnamon measuring 2.1 meters long, 78 centimeters wide and 25 centimeters thick, is believed to be part of a coffin lid, and was originally part of a four-meter-long piece of wood. It is adorned with straight and curved lines and also triple concentric circles. The fragment retains some of its original vermillion lacquer finish.


If these fragments were to be assembled, they would suggest the shape of a boat with upward arching pointed ends, like a gondola, with a coffin on it.


The boat is similar to one described in a seventh-century Chinese book: "The remains of a noble are kept outside a mortuary for three years. Then, for the burial, they are put into a boat and carried over land."


The Suyama tomb is a 220-meter-long keyhole-shaped mound. An emperor or another person of exalted status is believed to have been buried in the tomb.


The unearthed items will be on display to the public March 4-5 at the town's cultural property preservation center.


Prof. Kunihiko Kawakami of Kobe Yamate University, who is an archaeologist, said: "It may have been placed at a mortuary, and after sending the remains to a tomb, it may have been destroyed and thrown away. For the first time, we have clarification of a funeral ritual that reproduces the world of myth."


(Feb. 24, 2006)




For further information, please contact:

Claire Bowles

New Scientist


0207 611 1210


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22 February 2006 Gladiators fought by the book

under embargo until 22 Feb 2006 19:00 GMT


The Roman arena may have played host to appalling brutality in the name of entertainment, but at least the gladiators who fought there maintained certain standards. A forensic analysis of remains from a gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey reveals that unlike the gory free-for-all depicted in films like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, real gladiators stuck to strict rules of combat and did not resort to the savage violence and mutilation typical of battlefields of the era.


The forensic work may also confirm what historians had previously suspected – that gladiators whom the crowd condemned to death were often still alive when dragged from the arena, and were in fact dispatched by a final hammer blow to the head from a backstage executioner.


Much of what we understand about gladiatorial combat comes from Roman artwork, which suggests that gladiators were well

matched in their capabilities, and followed sets of rules enforced by two referees.


To find out whether they actually stuck to the rules, Karl Großschmidt of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria and Fabian Kanz of the Austrian Archaeological Institute used modern forensic techniques to determine the causes of death of 67 gladiators discovered at Ephesus, the centre of power for ancient Rome’s empire in western Asia. The cemetery, identified by tomb reliefs of gladiators, was uncovered by archaeologists in 1993 and is thought to date from the second century AD.


Kanz and Großschmidt used CT scanning and microscopic analysis of bone injuries to identify whether the gladiators’ injuries had occurred at the time of death or earlier in their lives.


Injuries to the front of each skull suggested that each opponent used just one type of weapon per bout of face-to-face contact, the researchers say in a paper to be published in Forensic Science International. The lack of multiple injuries and mutilation shows that the very strict nature of combat rules for gladiator fights was adhered to, they say.


However, despite the fact that most gladiators wore helmets, 10 had died of a squarish hammer-like injury to the side of the head. A possible explanation is that the injuries were inflicted after the fight, possibly by a backstage executioner who struck the doomed victim’s head, as has been suggested in artworks and literature.


Großschmidt says his findings dismiss the theory that gladiatorial combat was a kind of martial-arts spectacular in which death was rare (New Scientist, 22 January 2005, p 14). Kathleen Coleman of Harvard University who was historical consultant on Gladiator agrees with their findings. “The fact that none of the gladiators’ skulls was subjected to a repeated battering does seem to confirm that discipline was exercised in gladiatorial combat and its aftermath,” she says. ?


Written by PAUL MARKS


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New Scientist issue 25th Feb 2006 



2,000 years of history revealed

THOUSANDS of years of history have been uncovered at a major archaeological dig in St Neots.

From iron age relics to medieval ground works a record of the last 2,000 years and beyond has been carefully unearthed at the Love's Farm site, just off Cambridge Road.


After a year of hard and painstaking work by a team of more than 20 archaeologists, the dig – one of the largest ever undertaken in the UK – is now coming to a close.


More than half the 60 hectare site has been stripped and meticulously mapped out so that centuries of historical data can be recorded before the site is developed with new homes, a school and other facilities.


The dig was commissioned and funded by Gallagher Estates and has been conducted by the Archaeological Field Unit of Cambridgeshire County Council.


Project director Mark Hinman from the archaeological field unit explained the dig's significance.


He said: "The site is so large that the overall layout is best appreciated from the air.


"The ancient ditches of the Iron Age and Roman periods are visible as complex patterns of dark lines that are overlain by more recent boundaries.


"We have been able to trace the development of the site from these early origins to the present day.


"I think that what is most amazing about the whole site is that the landscape around here was always thought to be completely modern but this site shows that the layout has been here since the Iron Age.


"People have lived and worked here for more than 2,000 years and things really have not changed. For the most part people have simply repaired the layout that was already there.

"When you come down Cambridge Road the landscape would have looked much the same 2,000 years ago."


Mr Hinman explained that one of the main problems with the historical record was that although a lot was known about how people lived in towns, not a lot was known about how people in the country lived, even though they were in a majority.


During the excavation a wealth of forgotten detail has been found.


People moved on to the land around the first century BC.

Farming was always the main focus of activity, with cattle, sheep and horses the main livestock and wheat, oats and barley the main crops.


Changes in diet and fashion have been charted through discarded remains found in the mud.


Finds from the site include Iron Age insects, Roman grape pips and rare examples of leather shoes.


A dog with white stones in its eye sockets, horses buried without their heads and carefully chosen collections of objects such as cooking pots buried at the entranceway to enclosures indicate that religious belief, superstition and magic clearly played an important part in everyday life.


All the artefacts recovered at the Love Lane site are now being preserved and catalogued by the county council.

23 February 2006




By Ross Findon

ARCHAEOLOGISTS could be close to discovering a medieval settlement beneath a Newport estate.

John Ashall, archaeologist in charge of the Pan estate project, said he had uncovered much more evidence than expected of prehistoric, Roman and medieval life.

Experts were still investigating the discovery of a mystery item found during a recent field walk, he said.

The final field walk is due to take place on Saturday, when the public will be able to join the search for evidence of historic activity.

Mr Ashall, who has worked on projects around the world, will then catalogue the finds and prepare a report for the county archaeologist and other experts next month.

"When I started this project, I did not expect to find anything. Previous digs have found nothing. To find so many medieval artefacts has been an eye-opener," he said.

Medieval items include pieces of pottery and jewellery that suggest they are close to pin-pointing the location of Le Penne, the settlement that has so far remained undiscovered.

Mr Ashall suspected the site might be under Great Pan Farm and he may recommend in his report that further excavations and investigation are required.

Mr Ashall said: "I thought this would be a little community project that would get people interested in archaeology but it has become much bigger. I am amazed at how much stuff has been found."

The field walk will leave from behind the Newport Football Club ground at 10.30am.

23 February 2006



A Visigoth in Kent?

The excavations at Springhead uncovered a large number of brooches. One in particular has turned out to be a very exciting discovery. X-ray photography showed that the 5th-6th century iron bow brooch was of Visigothic design, of a type known as Estagel. The Visigoths (West Goths) were one of the German tribes. Settled near the Black Sea in the 3rd century AD, by the 6th century they had migrated west and reached Spain and northern France.


Kent was probably the most cosmopolitan region in the country at this time and Saxons and Jutes have left evidence of their culture here. In the last 30 years or so, a number of objects of Visigothic design have come to light, mainly in south-east England. Now this brooch adds to the evidence for connections between the people of Kent and the small number of Visigothic groups known to have lived in northern France at the time.




Lady of Wells reveals her secrets 


The current bishop wants to restore the throne room

A mysterious medieval wall painting found beneath the floor of the Bishop of Bath and Wells' bedroom has given up its secrets.

The painting, which shows a partly-clad woman wearing a transparent dress, dates from between 1460 and 1470.


It was part of the decoration of the throne room of Bishop Thomas Beckynton.


Dr Mark Horton, of Bristol University, who researched the painting discovered it is most likely to be part of a scene representing a medieval paradise.


  It was rather like something out of the Da Vinci Code, creeping beneath the bishop's floorboards to come face to face with this incredible piece of medieval art


Dr Mark Horton 


The painting was found by builders three years ago in the space between two floors in the Virgin's Tower next to heating pipes where the whitewash had fallen away.


The key to the identification is a medieval manuscript that shows the actual throne room with the wall paintings accurately depicted.


The manuscript is at Trinity College, Cambridge but a Victorian copy exists in the Special Collections of Bristol University and this shows the playwright Thomas Chaundler presenting one of his plays to Bishop Beckynton in 1460.


Dr Horton said: "The amazing thing is that this medieval manuscript accurately records what was on the wall. This included details of foliage and fruits which we then were able to find behind the heating pipes next to the image of the lady.


"It was rather like something out of the Da Vinci Code, creeping beneath the bishop's floorboards to come face to face with this incredible piece of medieval art."


The discovery has inspired the current Bishop, the Right Rev Peter Price, who lives in the palace, to want to restore the throne room to its former glory with the painted lady in pride of place along with the rest of the earthly garden.




Blackbeard's Presumed Ship Gets New Layer

By STEVE HARTSOE, Associated Press Writer

Wed Feb 22, 8:42 PM ET


RALEIGH, N.C. - Authorities are resorting to a risky new method aimed at helping preserve what is believed to be the sunken flagship of the pirate Blackbeard.


The Army Corps of Engineers is creating an underwater sand dune to shelter the Queen Anne's Revenge, which sits about 26 feet underwater off the North Carolina coast.


The untried method could potentially damage the ship, which sank in 1718. But if it works, experts said it could be a model for protecting other underwater archaeological finds.


"We don't really know what it's going to do," said Bill Adams, a biologist with the Corps.


The idea of burying the wreck in sand was suggested in the state's plan for managing the site after it was discovered in 1996.


Project archaeologist Chris Southerly said the burial was made possible because the corps was dredging near the site and had a ready supply of sand. Dredging began Wednesday.


The dumped sand will create a slope on the ocean floor that's about 600 feet long, 200 feet wide and 6 feet tall. Experts hope ocean currents will carry sand toward the ship, replenishing the protective covering it once had.


Archeologists have been retrieving artifacts from the wreck for years and haven't stopped diving on the site. But exposure of cannons, anchors, and other artifacts is now at a "critical point," Southerly said.


Organic material like wood are especially at risk of rapid deterioration with the loss of the preserving cover of sand, he said.


Blackbeard, whose real name was widely believed to be Edward Teach or Thatch, was tracked down at Ocracoke Inlet by volunteers from the Royal Navy and killed in a battle on Nov. 22, 1718.


Some scientists, including a pair of professors who published an article last year, have questioned whether the wreck is the Queen Anne's Revenge. They suggest the vessel is more likely a mid-18th century merchant ship than a pirate's boat.


But Southerly, who's been studying the Queen Anne's Revenge since 2000, said research supports his view that the ship, discovered in 1996, belonged to Blackbeard.


"The Queen Anne's Revenge is the only candidate that fits, that is documented in Beaufort Inlet," he said.